ALEXANDER THE GREAT CAPTURES THE HEARTS OF THE TURKANA TRIBE
by Metropolitan Makarios (Tillyrides) of Kenya
There is a manuscript, number 162, in the Monastery of Iviron on Mount Athos, which contains a remarkable description of the life and glorious achievement of the Great Macedonian King, Alexander the Great.
The narration is well written in elegant and literary Greek. It includes details of Alexander's childhood; his studies under his mentor, the great philosopher Aristotle; his military campaigns and victories; his cultural and non-military achievements; and finally, his death. The narrative is so compelling that the reader gains the impression that he is reading of recent events.
At one point the document refers to the episode of Alexander ordering the destruction of the bridges across the Euphrates after his army had crossed the river. The action caused widespread disaffection in the army. "My brave soldiers, noble Macedonians," Alexander exhorted them, "why do you complain at the destruction of the bridges? God did not ordain that we should retreat, but to win and to conquer. I destroyed the bridges so that you would not be concerned with what is behind, but to encourage you to fight wholeheartedly. We have crossed the river and are not now concerned with anything behind us, but only to fight and to triumph."
Everywhere in the world today, governments and peoples practice democracy, or at least pay lip service to its principles. There is also the general acknowledgment that things should be based upon the rule of law and common practice. This originates from our illustrious Greek heritage, and was observed during the time of Alexander the Great and even earlier. All principles which are rooted and grounded in respect for human dignity have their sources in ancient Greek civilization. The seeds of subsequent civilizations which were planted, cultivated and bore fruit, were based upon the example which was passed on to other nations by that great benefactor of humanity, Alexander the Macedonian.
Aristotle directed Alexander's education and upbringing, which, provides the key to the progress which Alexander made towards moral and spiritual perfection. The training he received from the great philosopher resulted in the development to the highest degree of Alexander's natural abilities and talents.
The English philosopher, Sir Francis Bacon, a great admirer of Alexander, wrote: "When I reflect on my admiration for this leader, it is not as Alexander the Great, but as a pupil of Aristotle."
John Owen, the Welsh epigrammatist wrote "The greatest of the kings, the wisest of the wise, Alexander the Great was taught by the great Aristotle. Although he taught Alexander, Alexander appeared better than the great Aristotle.
Towards the end of his magnificent account of Alexander the Great, the author of the manuscript of Iviron concludes with Alexander's valedictory to his army: "O great men, my cavalry and my soldiers, please do not become emotional in any way when I am lost to you because death has conquered me. Only I beg you to remember me always in the love I had for you and the achievements and death of King Alexander. You, my people, should humbly render a report of this emperor who conquered the world after which he only occupied three measures of earth and his great glory became like a spider's web and invisible dust. He appeared to the world as a flower and in a hour he wilted and vanished. In an hour the candle was lit and in an hour it went out.
Many tribes and people claim to have descended from Alexander the Great. Numerous cities around the world carry his name, and many still bear witness to his 'influence and presence. Peoples of all races and widely varying traditions believe that Alexander was their forefather. Even in Kenya there is a tribe of warriors who claim that they are descendants of Alexander the Great. The tribe is called the "Turkana" and they live around Lake Turkana, previously known as Lake Rudolf. Even today they preserve many of the ancient customs of their tribe. They are one of the few tribes in Kenya —another being the Masai — which has yet to be influenced by "modernization" and civilization." The Turkana live primitively by hunting and rearing livestock. Tall and slim, dressed in colourful, usually red cloaks, their throats adorned with beautiful necklaces, they carry hunting bows in their hands and stand proudly, almost reminiscent of ancient Greek warriors.
My initial contact with the Turkana tribe was in 1982 when I first visited their area. Later, many of their number were baptised into the Orthodox faith. The catechesis took place under the shade of a spreading tree — perhaps the only one in the area at that time — and lasted throughout my holidays from the Patriarchal Seminary in Nairobi. Under that tree we gradually got to know one another, and slowly a close friendship developed. It was this relationship which helped the Turkana to open their hearts and talk of their glorious ancestry, as they believe it to be, as it has been passed down from generation to generation.
The Turkana believe that a white man, a European once visited their region. It was Alexander, or as they say in their language, "Emousoukout Lokingaren." At that time the local tribes, especially those who rear animals, were fighting among themselves, even as they are today. The Turkana wanted to seize the livestock of the rival Saburu tribe. Suddenly, there was Alexander. He gave them courage and told them to stop fighting amongst themselves. The Turkana welcomed him as a god sent by the angels. According to their custom, they bathed him in milk, saying that God Himself had visited them. Alexander traveled around the region and was glad to be amongst the local people. Natives came from all around to see him. They worshipped him as their god, paid him great honours and eventually gave him various symbolic names. In one area he was called "Longor Kelae", which means "the one with the black teeth." In another area he was called "Ekengarakinan," or "the one who helps." After he had been with them for quite some time, they gave him the name "eroukouyiok", meaning "ours." When Alexander saw the extent of their veneration, he had to tell the people that he was not the god they believed him to be, but a mortal like them; someone who wanted to teach them, to help them.
The elders of the tribe claim today that when Alexander first arrived, he carried a long bow, or weapon, which was large and impressive. He wore ornaments around his neck and ankles — the kind of ornaments which the Turkana still wear today. He taught them how to make a small weapon: which came to be called an "amalitei," and he brought flour with him. In fact, they say that Alexander was the first white man ever to set foot in those parts. The Turkana were sad when the time came for Alexander, the man who had taught them so many useful things, the man of goodness and hope, to leave. They deeply believe he helps them even now, and look to the day when he will return and live among them again.
The above is just one interpretation of the relationship between Alexander the Great and the Turkana tribe. According to another tradition which I came across while in Kenya, a local woman was actually married to Alexander and gave birth to twins — one white, the other black. The black child brought the Turkana tribe into the world, whereas the white child returned to Europe.
The Turkana say that Alexander lived in this region at a time when there was war between them and the neighbouring tribes, and he helped to defend them. They call Alexander "Lodekelaei," which means the one with the white face, or the one with the smiling face. He brought ornaments from his palace with him, which he gave to the Turkana. Ornaments like these are still worn by men and women, around their throats and around their wrists. But he also brought with him the trappings of war. He taught the Turkana how to make weapons which they call "amatitae." He also taught them how to make large and small spears — the same as the spears they use today, and which they call "the spears of Alexander." He also left behind him something of his creed. He told them of God and showed them ways of worshipping Him. Indeed, the Turkana believe that much of what they have and many of their customs come from the time when Alexander the Great was with them.
When talking to the Turkana about Alexander, one gets the impression that they truly consider him to be holy and divine. He is a potent and significant element in their lives. When things are not going well, they turn to the teachings of their elders, which are concerned with Alexander the Great, to find a solution. It is strange that the tribe is still primitive. They live very close to nature and express themselves differently from other tribes. They love their traditions and follow their customs faithfully today, even as they did then.
Some may consider them backward, but they have a distinctive pride because they believe that their origins are so noble. Whenever they meet a Greek, they seize the opportunity to tell of Alexander's great successes. They love to show off the jewelery which decorates their bodies, their arrows and other things which they cherish and which go back to the time when Alexander the Great passed through their land.
Whether we agree with them or not, the Turkana believe that they descend from the tribe of Alexander the Great. The thought gives them courage and hope, even though they live in such unfavourable and difficult conditions. It is inconceivable that anyone who helps the tribe should not be given the name "Lodekelaei" — Alexander. The Turkana live with the dream that Alexander the Great lives among them and that he hears them when they speak. He truly captured their hearts, and those among them who have not yet come into the light of Orthodoxy worship him as their god.